Paul V. Griffith
In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat
By Rick Atkinson
(Henry Holt, 336 pp., $25)
The author speaks at the Main Public Library, 6:30 p.m. March 24
One major criticism of U.S. military commanders during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War was that they kept the press corps in the dark. Therefore, when war loomed again in Iraq last year, the Defense Department took special care to place journalists close to those conducting the battles. One such embedded reporter, veteran Washington Post correspondent Rick Atkinson, has published a chronicle of the war. In the Company of Soldiers provides a balanced but unflinching look at the mechanics, politics and intellectual rigors of modern warfare.
Atkinson is an experienced narrator of war. An Army at Dawn, the first book in his planned three-volume set on U.S. military campaigns in Europe during World War II, won a Pulitzer Prize in history. In February 2003, Atkinson was working on the second volume when he was invited to shadow Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the tough but empathetic commander of the 101st’s Airborne Division, during the invasion of Iraq. For this vantage point, Atkinson was privy to strategies and apprehensions of those at the top level of the war’s command and control centers.
In the Company of Soldiers is divided into two parts. The first, titled “Peace,” describes the 101st’s preparation for battle: the Herculean task of moving 17,000 soldiers, their weapons, personal supplies and heavy equipment (including over 200 helicopters) from Fort Campbell, Ky., to a battle assembly area just outside the Iraqi border. Part two, titled “War,” details the two-month-long series of major operations that followed deployment and led to the occupation of Baghdad.
Atkinson displays throughout an in-depth understanding of war technology and a personal appreciation for the military mind-set. He portrays Petraeus as a compassionate and highly competent commander whose sharp mind and efficiency under fire make him the ideal human component in America’s hi-tech military arsenal. “The stress of combat was indeed a revealer of character,” Atkinson writes, “and I had watched [Petraeus] grapple with his doubts, then steel himself and soldier on.” Such determination, however, no doubt separated the major general from many of his junior officers: “If others found him hard to lovehis intensity, competitiveness and serrated intellect made adoration difficulthe was nevertheless broadly respected and instantly obeyed.”
As with any military historian worth his publishing deal, Atkinson makes a distinction between the ways and means of soldiering and the rationales for war employed by the powers that be. Petraeus and his men are unabashedly the heroes of In the Company of Soldiers, whereas the Pentagon and the Bush administrationDefense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in particularare portrayed as deceitful, opportunistic and, above all, woefully unprepared for Operation Iraqi Freedom’s anarchic finale: “Too little thought had been given, by the army or anyone else in the Defense Department, to securing Iraq, except for the oil fields and WMD deposits, which would prove nonexistent.” The division’s soldiers, Atkinson writes, “were better than the cause they served.... And I believed it vital not to conflate the warriors with the war.”
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